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Afghanistan Overhauls War on Drugs

A new government department is set to tackle the opium trade – but will it prevail?
By Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi

In a bid to combat the burgeoning opium trade, the Afghan government is creating a new counter-narcotics department that will bring disparate agencies together under one roof.

The new office, created by Ali Ahmad Jalali, Afghanistan's interior minister, is designed to give added clout to the campaign against drug production and trafficking and allow better co-ordination between regional and national anti-trafficking programmes. It is scheduled to begin work early this month.

According to government statistics, the country last year produced some 70 per cent of the world's opium. Shah Mahmood Miakhel, a senior adviser at the interior ministry, told IWPR that Afghanistan has seen a record opium harvest this year and that the volume of smuggling has "gone up dramatically".

Miakhel said the new department would improve government co-ordination of efforts by the scattered law-enforcement and security agencies. At present, Afghanistan's counter-narcotics programme is a loose collection of local police forces, narcotics-eradication teams, customs officials and other agencies. The new counter-narcotics department, headed by a deputy internal minister, will answer to the interior ministry, with regional departments in each province.

Experts who worked in eradication and anti-trafficking programmes in Thailand and Colombia will assist the new department. Financing for the new department remains unclear but the United Kingdom, the United States, Germany, Italy and Norway have all pledged support for the undertaking.

Millions in international aid have already been committed to combating drug production in Afghanistan. The United Kingdom alone has committed to spend nearly 125 million US dollars between 2003 and 2005. The World Bank has just announced a 19.6 million dollar grant, provided by the Japanese government, which will be used for ex-combatants and to help people living in poppy-growing areas find alternative work.

But government officials concede that departmental reorganisations and the injection of extra money will - on their own - do little to curb drug production and trafficking unless the central government is willing to confront powerful local commanders and other top officials who profit from the drug trade.

"The big problem for the Afghan government in fighting drugs is that drugs smuggling is done by commanders using force of arms, " said Miakhel.

Mirwais Yaseeny, head of the government's independent anti-drug commission, said the government has failed to move against regional officials and local commanders known to be involved in the drug trade. But he predicted that government would move against such people once it consolidates its control over the regions.

"The main obstacles to banning growing and smuggling are the lack of a strong central government, corruption, the involvement of governmental authorities in smuggling, the existence of private militias, and the absence of alternative [crops] to cultivate instead of poppies," said Yaseeny.

In recent years, farmers have increasingly turned to growing poppies. According to a United Nations survey, both poppy cultivation and opium production increased in 2003. Poppy cultivation has spread to 28 of the country's 32 provinces, with Nangarhar, Helmand, Badakhshan, Oruzgan, Ghor and Kandahar provinces being the main production areas.

The UN survey found that seven per cent of the country’s population is now involved in poppy cultivation or opium production. On average, each poppy-growing family earns 3,900 dollars a year, according to the survey.

In the northern province of Balkh, Shahzada, a farmer, laughed as he told an IWPR reporter how was selling his opium to a local trader. "Though the yields of opium this year are inadequate due to lack of water, I have received as much as I need to pay for the expenses of my family for one year," he said.

"If I sow poppies on a piece of land, I can get a 1,000 dollars return, but if I sow wheat or cotton on the same land it would provide me a return of only 100 dollars," he said.

Gul Ahmad, who travels regularly to Balkh province from Helmand, has been in the opium business for three years. He told IWPR he buys the opium from farmers and local smugglers and sells it to people in the south. He said he buys and transports more than 500 kilograms of raw opium every month.

General Amir Hamza, the central government's security representative in the town of Balkh, a small urban centre near Mazar-e-Sharif in Balkh province, explained why law enforcement officials were unable to stop the drug trade.

"All the people in this district who buy and sell narcotics are armed, or are supported by powerfully armed groups," he said.

Hamza said there are several local political factions which can field about 4,000 gunmen between them, while this small city has only 60 police officers.

He accused Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the head of the Hizb-i-Islami faction who is currently being sought by Coalition led forces because of his links with Taleban and al-Qaeda, of being involved in drug smuggling in the district.

"Most buying and selling of opium is done in the military camps of these parties, where they load the trucks with opium and convey it to other places freely," said Hamza.

He added that local militias often provided security for groups of smugglers. "What can 60 policemen do?" he asked.

Experts in Balkh province say drug smugglers are now regularly arriving in this northern region from Iran, Pakistan and Central Asia.

A government source, who declined to be identified, told IWPR that an estimated 60,000 kilograms of opium are now being trafficked openly each week in Balkh province alone.

Despite these figures, Yaseeny said the government believes its new measures will be able to put an end to the drug trade.

"According the government's strategy, narcotics will be finished in Afghanistan within the next eight years," he said.

Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi is a staff reporter with IWPR in Mazar-e-Sharif.

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